RALEIGH — In the summer of 1994, Melanie Dubis was a law clerk at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP, where she spent time parsing the language in the state constitution regarding the right to public education.
She had no idea, though, that her work would help lay the foundation for one of the state’s best-known legal sagas, the Leandro case, and would follow her throughout her legal career.
The Leandro case would establish that students in the state’s poorest school districts were not receiving the “sound basic education” to which they were entitled. It also ushered in nearly a decade of legal wrangling over the state’s efforts to meet that obligation.
Dubis, now 43, has stuck with the case all along – from clerk to young associate to partner at the venerable firm with six offices in several states. She has been involved through the five-week trial, numerous appeals, and 20 court hearings since the landmark 2004 ruling by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.
This month, she was back at it again as she argued in front of the state Supreme Court that funding reductions to the state’s prekindergarten program by the current legislature violate the right to a sound education. The court hasn’t yet issued a ruling.
Larry Armstrong is the school board attorney for Halifax County, one of five rural counties that originally filed the suit in 1995. He said Dubis’ deep knowledge of and commitment to the Leandro case have served the state’s poorest students well over the years.
“Melanie has brought a passion and enthusiasm to the case that I don’t think she could bring if she didn’t really believe in the cause,” Armstrong said. “She’s very professional, and she’s stuck with it through a lot of ups and downs.”
It’s an unusual legacy for a lawyer whose practice is mainly devoted to complex corporate cases. But Dubis, also board chairwoman for the Carolina Ballet, relishes variety.
She speaks widely at civic groups about the Leandro case, and Dubis has also spoken to groups about cyberbullying and other issues with the expertise she built in researching privacy and liability issues about social media. She also serves as pro bono general counsel for the Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina.
“You have to learn every aspect of every industry you work with and every fact pattern you get,” she said. “While this case is all about differentiated instruction and formative and summative assessments, for a patent case, you have to learn about ranitidine hydrochloride. Every case you’re learning something new.”
A gift for argument
Dubis grew up in Kernersville, a Piedmont town that she said was pleasantly small, but close enough to Winston-Salem and other Triad cities to afford her access to malls, concerts and annual performances of “The Nutcracker.”
Her mother was a bookkeeper, and her father worked as a truck driver after retiring from the Air Force.
Dubis’ plans to study law started when she was still in elementary school and were prompted by her mother, who was exasperated with her combative nature.
“You like to argue so much, you should be a lawyer,” Dubis recalls her mother saying.
So she studied political science at UNC-Chapel Hill and went on to Vanderbilt University for law school.
Initially, Dubis thought arguing in court was primarily what lawyers did. But when she realized how rarely most attorneys go to trial, she considered going into criminal law so she would be able to spend more time in court.
But her criminal law classes didn’t go well, she said, and her summer at Parker Poe did. So she returned to the firm, which typically represents businesses in corporate disputes.
Basic skills for students
The Leandro case was brought by students in five rural school districts who argued that they were not receiving an adequate education; six urban school districts eventually joined.
Armstrong, the attorney who helped initiate the case, said the group intentionally chose Parker Poe, which represents the Leandro plaintiffs at a discounted rate.
“There are entities that routinely file civil rights actions and actions for protection of children,” he said. “We wanted Leandro to be a different kind of lawsuit, and we wanted a different kind of law firm.”
When Dubis took a full-time job at the firm in 1995, the Leandro case was on hold pending a motion to dismiss it entirely.
By 1997, it was clear that the case would go to trial, and Dubis was chosen to be part of the team led by Robert Spearman, then a partner at Parker Poe.
For the law student who wanted to maximize her time in the courtroom, the intense five-week trial was exciting. But the time she spent preparing for the trial was equally eye-opening.
Her work brought her to rural Hoke County, where she was taken aback by the stark differences between the rural schools there and those she had experienced in Kernersville – from the large numbers of poor students to the lack of resources in science labs.
Part of her job was to assess how prekindergarten classes might help students, some of whom entered kindergarten without ever seeing a book or holding a crayon.
“They didn’t know that you read it from left to right,” she said. “They didn’t know how to hold a book or a pencil. They come to kindergarten with the difficulty of trying to make up all that lost ground.”
Dubis questioned several witnesses during the trial, including getting testimony from local employers about the need to teach new high school graduates basic skills.
Manning’s 2004 ruling was considered a victory for the districts. And since then, Manning has continued to monitor the state’s efforts to ensure that poor students are receiving adequate services.
The current issue arose when the legislature reduced funding to NC Pre-K, the state prekindergarten program for poor students that, until recently, was known as More at Four.
Dubis is now the lead lawyer on the case; Spearman has retired. She argued that the state has touted the prekindergarten program as its key remedy for poor students under the Leandro ruling. Cutting the program, therefore, violates the ruling.
The Court of Appeals agreed and asked the state Supreme Court to review that decision.
Waiting for a Leandro ruling is nothing new for Dubis, who has spent long years with no activity on the case between appeals.
And while this month’s hearing had political overtones – reinforced by those already critical of the Republican-led legislature – the Leandro case, Dubis said, has crossed typical political lines.
It was initially fought by Democratic governors and legislatures leery of the intrusion of the courts into policymaking. Yet Dubis said the issues at hand also transcend politics.
“The rights of children really shouldn’t be a political issue,” she said. “It’s more fundamental than that.”
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